Nashville: A Community of Leaders

AASA’s National Conference on Education officially kicks off this week and I am pleased to report that the 2018 edition will be our largest convening in more than 10 years. This tells me that more and more superintendents and other public school administrators across the country are eager to learn from one another, trade strategies, and discuss what is working on behalf of the more than 50 million students who are attending our public schools.

Though the official launch of the conference is not until Thursday, meetings have been well underway at the Music City Center, our conference site. No longer is our conference a three-day event. We have created a cadre of professional development programs, specifically tailored to school system leaders who wish to grow their careers, foster leadership strengths and develop their skills.

Workshops began as early as Monday for participants of AASA’s National Superintendent Certification Program®. To recognize their accomplishment, members of our East Coast Cohort will be brought on stage later this week and be recognized for successfully completing the rigorous process.

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, serves as  one of our Certification instructional leaders who joined us in Nashville to facilitate our West cohort programs. “In order for large and small public school districts to move forward, we have to make sure that we have high quality and effective leadership at the top of these systems,” he said. “This is a program that gives superintendents the skills they need to implement a plan to move a district forward.”

Other pre-conference meetings this week involving our leadership programs will include our Urban Superintendents Academies, National Principal Supervisor Academy, Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium, STEM Leadership Consortium, Early Learning Cohort, Aspiring Superintendents Academy®, AASA Leadership Academy and our Redefining Ready! Initiative.

As you can see, it’s quite a line-up and all of these meetings are taking place even before our first general session gets underway Thursday afternoon.

Professional development of this breath and quality did not exist when I was a superintendent. These are truly innovative programs we are really excited about. The feedback we receive from participants continues to be very positive. If you are with us in Nashville, please do not hesitate to ask me about these professional development initiatives.

Whether or not you’re attending the 2018 National Conference on Education, I encourage you to access AASA’s Conference Daily Online, our daily online e-newsletter, which will contain wall-to-wall coverage of news and photo highlights throughout the week.

Enjoy the 2018 National Conference on Education!

A Look at Two Prominent Private Schools in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Past President Amy Sichel; AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

Just as in the U.S., there are both government sponsored and private school options available in Scotland. After visiting government funded schools, we had an invitation to tour some private institutions.

The Mary Erskine School (for girls) and Stewart’s Melville College (for boys) are schools within the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) private system. These schools are single sex from ages 12-18. The schools offer day school, week boarding or full-time boarding. Tuition for the day school is approximately $14,000 and full-time tuition and boarding fees are approximately $26,000. Other services are available for additional fees, including coach transportation to the school and travel experiences.

The Mary Erskine School and Stewart Melville College started as schools for children of merchants who could not afford an education otherwise. The schools have been in existence since 1694. Today, although the schools are non-profit, they rely primarily on tuition for all operating costs.

Students must apply for entrance to the schools and take an exam as part of the admission process. There are some scholarships available, but that only reflects 5 percent of the school population.

The comparison between private and public schools in Scotland is similar to what can be made between the two systems in the U.S. One example is the demographics in those schools. Although scholarships are available to the private Scottish schools, it is evident that the majority of students come from higher income families. To meet the interests of students, the EMSM schools provided more than 70 after-school clubs and co-curricular activities. Government schools attempt to offer after school options but funding for these programs is an issue and fee-based programs in government sponsored schools can create a hardship for families.

Filling academic gaps is a common goal shared by the private and government schools in Scotland and in the U.S., but there are some differences in the resources available to accomplish that. Ensuring that the needs of the whole child are met is another common area of focus in both school systems. Once again, however, there is a difference in tools available in government funded versus private schools.

When all is said and done, the place we call school may look different for children attending private vs. government-run schools and the resources available do differ. However, making certain students have their needs met, and any academic, physical, social or emotional gaps are addressed, are goals shared by all educators in these institutions of learning.

The bottom line is, we must make certain there is equity in our educational systems and each and every child has an opportunity for a quality education—on both sides of the ocean.


Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

A Look at Personalized Learning in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; AASA Past President Amy Sichel; Dochgarroch Primary School Head Teacher and Principal Sandra MacLennan; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

A visit to Dochgarroch Primary School in Inverness, Scotland was a true lesson in personalizing learning. Sandra MacLennan, the head teacher and principal, arranged an extraordinary visit that included a tour of the entire facility and visits to a music class, preschool and regular classroom.

During the music class, we were treated to children performing piano, violin, trumpet and chanter solos. We learned that the chanter was the “training” instrument for bagpipes. That was followed by children sharing traditional Scottish songs and dance. The students were kind enough to give their American visitors a dancing lesson. I am not certain one lesson was enough. In the regular classrooms, we saw children typing in Braille, others on a computer doing a lesson, a story time and a pre-school class having snack.

You may be asking why any of this is special or how it relates to personalized learning? Well, this school has a total of 19 children ranging in age from 4 to 12 and includes special needs students. These children are served in two classrooms by one classroom teacher, one head teacher, a few support personnel and two special area teachers who rotate between schools in the region. The interests and needs of each child are being met in this unique learning environment.

This government school not only builds on their students’ passions and strengths but are equally dedicated to ensuring the child’s academic needs are met, including filling what is referred to as the attainment gap. In fact, the government has provided 1,800 pounds per student or approximately $2,300 per student to provide support to students who need that extra help. The student’s free meal status is used to help determine the funding received. Yes, this does sound familiar to Title 1 in some ways. Where it differs is the flexibility in how the funds can be used. The head teacher and parents work together to determine how best to fill the gap.

The take away from this visit is, whether schools are large or very small, located in the highlands of Scotland, the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz. or outside Philadelphia, Pa., meeting the needs of every child must be the goal. Personalizing a child’s education ensures we tap their passions, build on their strengths and focus on their weaknesses.

Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

Doing the Best with What You Have

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

Costa Rica – Louis Rojas is the principal of the San Rafael School, a small facility serving 114 students. Louis reports directly to a district supervisor that is similar to the district superintendent in the U.S.

Similar to the other schools we have visited, San Rafael educates preschoolers ages 4-5, kindergarten for 6-year-olds and the primary education grades 1-6. From there, students will attend “college,” the equivalent of high school for our students.

Uniforms are required in all schools as to eliminate economic differences. Their “college” is a six-year program where the first three years focus on general education while the last three require students to focus on either academic or technical tracks. They will graduate with a “bachelor’s” degree that grants them access to the public and private universities in the country.

Similar to the U.S., poverty is also a major factor. Forty-two percent of preschool children live in homes where parents have less than six years of schooling and more than 60 percent live in poverty. All of the schools we visited were lacking the resources that the principals regarded as necessary to meet the needs of the students.

Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming commitment to educate all children supported by administrators and teachers who do the best they can with what they have.

Dan is blogging throughout the AASA International Seminar, which is taking place in Costa Rica.

AASA Leadership Visits Costa Rica


AASA President Alton Frailey with students in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Alajuela, Costa Rica – In 1869, Costa Rica made education both free and mandatory for all its citizens. Lore has it that the country was experiencing economic hard times and could not afford to maintain both an army and a public education system. They chose education and today Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without a standing army. They even boast of having more teachers than police officers.

We visited the Carrizal elementary school in the mountain town of Alajuela. The school of 600 accommodates pre-school through grade six as well as special education students who attend one of two five hour shifts, a morning and afternoon session. Teachers are only allowed to teach one shift.

Based on achievement, the school is level 4, with level 5 being the highest performing schools. The school year runs 200 days from mid-February to mid-December. Class size averages about 32 students per class.

Instruction is very traditional with students in desks facing the blackboard in the front of the room where the teacher delivers the lesson. Even so, Costa Rica boasts a 95 percent literacy rate among residents age 15 and older.

Alajuela is a coffee bean growing region surrounded by dense foliage and beautiful streams. It typifies the tranquility that Costa Rica is so famous for.

The children are happy to see us and look forward to practicing their mandatory English language skills with us. To a resounding cheer, I tell them that they are doing so well that I might take them all back to the U.S. with me.

AASA’s Final Four

SOY Finalists Group 1 -1This is an exciting time for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. It’s also an exciting time for school system leadership and public education.

In two weeks, hundreds of superintendents will convene in Phoenix, Ariz., for the National Conference on Education where AASA’s 2016 National Superintendent of the Year will be announced.

I couldn’t be prouder of our finalists. I had the opportunity to meet them during our press conference at the National Press Club in mid-January. In my view, we have four winners. I know it will be a difficult choice for our panel of judges.

One thing among others that impresses me about our finalists—they all have tremendous passion for what they do. Here is what they shared with us about being a superintendent:

Pamela Moran, Albemarle County (Va.) Public Schools: “Nothing is more important than the profession of education. We need to keep elevating that message. Being a superintendent has an incredible responsibility—to see that all kids get the best learning opportunities available.”

Thomas Tucker, Princeton City (Ohio) Schools: “This business is about improving the lives of our children. I stand with more than 13,000 committed individuals who advocate for the goals of public education.”

Steven Webb, Vancouver (Wash.) Public Schools: “This work is about transforming the lives of children, and cultivating hope and opportunity in young people. I feel so blessed that my avocation and vocation are one in the same.”

Freddie Williamson, Hoke County (N.C.) Schools: “My life’s dream has always been to serve as a superintendent of a public school system. Public education has provided me with an opportunity to reach my life’s dream. It means that I’m going to be an inspiration to others.”

The 2016 Superintendent of the Year will be announced on Day 1 of our national conference, Thursday, Feb. 11. Congratulations to these outstanding individuals.

I invite you to view our latest video where you’ll hear more from Superintendents Moran, Tucker, Webb and Williamson.

Dan Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Final Day in Austria: A Time for Reflection in Austria

Dan Domenech with the AASA Delegation, Director Razidlo and a plate of apple strudel.

Dan Domenech with the AASA Delegation, Director Razidlo and a plate of apple strudel.

Vienna, Austria – AASA’s International Seminar is concluding and our school visits and meetings with education officials have been very informative.

It was after his visit to Austria that Horace Mann brought back its grade level structure, an organizational format still in use today. However, there are several practices in Austria today that we would not want to import. The country’s school day is much shorter than ours. At the primary schools (grades PreK-4), children are dismissed at lunchtime. The secondary school day lasts for about five hours. Meanwhile, Austria offers free programs for all three, four and five year olds, as well as full-day kindergarten. An idea we should definitely import.

At the end of fourth grade, Austrian students are sorted into two groups—those, who continue with an academic program leading to college (about one-third of the students) and those who’ll pursue a vocational track and apprenticeships (two thirds of the students).

From our perspective, this sorting occurs too early. It might be more appropriate at the end of eighth grade. However, Austria offers a free college education to all students, another great idea.

Stephen Razidlo, director of the American International School in Vienna, believes that many of the Austrian students attending his school do so because their parents did not want their children subjected to that selection process. Also, the American school offers a full day of instruction from K-12.

It was a great experience shared with David Schuler, AASA president; Amy Sichel, AASA past president; Bob Mills, former AASA executive board member; and Miranda Beard, president-elect of the National School Boards Association.

Auf wiedersehen!

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, is blogging throughout AASA’s International Seminar Delegation in Austria.

Day 7: A Look at the American International School in Vienna

Day 7 Austria

Dan Domenech with Director Stephen Razidlo and a student at the American International School of Vienna.

Vienna, Austria – There is a piece of the United States in Vienna. It is the American International School there.

Stephen Razidlo, former superintendent in Brainerd, Minn., is now the director of the Pre-K-12 system serving nearly 800 students. It is interesting to note that the majority of the students here are not Americans but Austrians and students from more than 40 countries seeking an American-style education.

American International Schools are in essence private, tuition-charging schools that cater primarily to the children of our diplomatic core in those countries and to the children of other Americans living abroad. However, they also accept students from the host country and other foreign students living there.

Our delegation was very impressed with the visit. The elementary school was celebrating United Nations Day and children were urged to come to school wearing their native garb. The photo above portrays a young lady in a Russian costume.

Cultural understanding and acceptance in such a bicultural setting is essential. Director Razidlo shared that in the height of the Russian-Ukraine conflict, students from those countries attending the school continued to maintain cordial relations with each other.

It was interesting to note that the school follows the Common Core curriculum, even though they are not required to do so at the elementary and middle schools, and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at the high school level.

Tomorrow, we will review the differences between the Austrian and the American schools and why it’s popular with the parents who send their children there.

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, is blogging throughout AASA’s International Seminar Delegation in Austria.

Day 5: The Learning Tracks in Austria

High school students in Vienna prepared snacks to sell and raise money for refugees.

High school students in Vienna prepared snacks to sell and raise money for refugees.

Vienna, Austria – Austria is a small country with a big heart. Despite just having 8 million residents, the country takes in 10,000 Syrian refugees a day and everybody is pitching in to help. Students at one of the schools we visited prepared snacks to sell in school to raise money for the refugees.

Universities are free in Austria. Students we spoke to are in the academic or “gymnasium” track and are expected to go to college. That decision was made when they were 10 years old at the end of primary school. Students not selected for the academic track go on to vocational programs and learn a trade. Two-thirds of Austrian students are in the vocational track.

Such a system would never fly in the U.S. Austrian education reformers rightfully consider such an important decision at such a young age to be inappropriate. Although some Austrians suggest that students always have opportunities to get into the academic track, the majority of those we spoke to admitted that it rarely happens.

On the plus side, vocational programs provide participants with opportunities to learn a trade. These programs offer wonderful apprenticeships resulting in gainful employment and a low unemployment rate for Austria.

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, is blogging throughout AASA’s International Seminar Delegation in Austria.

Day 3 in Austria: Personalized Learning—Austrian Style


AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech with students in the International Class at the Pedagogic College of Salzburg, Austria.

Salzburg, Austria—There is a lab school at the Pedagogic College of Salzburg that serves students in grades 1-4, which is a typical Austrian Primary school. Professor Deborah Pelzmann, the principal of the school, is charged with developing innovative practices in education and introducing students at the Pedagogic College to those practices.

I was delighted to discover that personalized learning is the prevailing practice for the schools. Professor Pelzmann is proud that students at the school take responsibility for their own learning, and are always taught at the level that is appropriate for them.

Teachers seldom “lecture” their classes. Every week, students fill out their schedules detailing which subject they will take, what time they will take it and for how long. At any given time you can find a mixture of students from all four grades working on the same activity, provided that it is suitable for their ability level at that time.

We had the opportunity to visit with students in the International class, which is taught primarily in English. I approached a second grader working on an activity with a fourth grader and I asked him if he spoke English. He looked at me as if that was the dumbest question he had ever heard. His response: “Of course I speak English. I also speak German and Japanese.”

Student teachers at the College spend time in the lab school classroom beginning in their very first semester Professor Pelzmann is hoping to train a new generation of teachers for whom the personalized learning approach will be the only way to teach.

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, is blogging throughout AASA’s International Seminar Delegation in Austria.